The curtain creeps back. A podium stands still in the centre of the stage. The audience waits, afraid to draw a breath, the sound of silence. A man strides across the floor to the podium and the silence is broken. “Good morning and thank you……” he begins. The lady in the wings smiles to herself. Confident, relaxed and aware all eyes are on her. This woman is his wife but not just any wife – the First Lady.
One of the ‘Chevaliéres’ – one of the ‘Female Knights.’
Fair of Face and Couture
It’s a good time to look back at some of the First Ladies in America. Were they strong and sophisticated or had they hang-ups like every other woman? Let’s begin with Edith Roosevelt at the turn of the last century. Like most women, Edith was concerned with her weight and unruly hair. Alongside managing the White House, she raised six children. With names including Kermit, Archibald Bullock and Quentin Roosevelt, one can only question the heavy burden she passed on to those unfortunate offspring.
Another New York native was Anna Eleanor Roosevelt who also had hang-ups about her looks. She had prominent teeth which made her look like her mouth never closed. As a young woman she wrote, “…no matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face, all will be attracted to her…” Convenient, you might say, for someone blessed with a face like hers. These women would be appalled or maybe relieved at the cosmetic rescue packages available nowadays.
Moving on to one of the most renowned fashion icons of them all, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy. She captured the nation’s attention in the 1960’s, more for her style than the previous First Ladies. In college she submitted and won a competition for Vogue magazine. The prize was to spend half a year in Paris and the other half in New York as junior editor. Her mother made her turn it down as she didn’t want her to leave the United States.
After this she took a job as a photographer for a local newspaper which inevitably led her to interview Senator Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy brought culture to the White House and she devoted a lot of her time in making it a museum of American history. She regarded her privacy as a crucial part of her life but the public and the media were obsessed by her. In later years, she remarried a Greek shipping tycoon, Aristotle Onassis, which ultimately led to more media hype. She was only 64 when she died. Inclusive in her legacy was fashion which is still apparent today in the “Jackie O” look.
“Lady Bird” Johnson was not a typical name for a First lady. The name derived from Claudia Johnson’s childhood and her love of the environment and nature. She had a degree in business, Art and Journalism. Jackie Kennedy would be a hard act to follow but Lady Bird Johnson did it with ease. She was devoted to her husband’s political career and it shone through when her husband suffered a heart attack in 1955. He said, “Voters would happily have voted her over me.” One of her environmental concerns prompted her to generate a First Ladies Committee for a beautiful Capital and eventually expanded it to the nation. Comparable to Mother Nature, her impact on American society won’t be forgotten.
Moving on through the reign of the First Ladies in American history, we come to Elizabeth Ford. The resignation of Richard Nixon propelled her into the White House alongside her husband. She always wore her hair swept up and her love of dance maintained her trim figure. She studied dance under Martha Graham, a famous teacher and even got to dance in Carnegie Hall. Through the years she became dependent on painkiller drugs and alcohol and her battle for recovery was instrumental in the establishment of the Betty Ford Centre. Her sincerity and openness made many regard her as one of the most, well loved First Ladies.
From Alzheimers to Allegations
Nancy Reagan was an established actress when she met her husband Ronald through the film industry; Clark Gable was on her list of ex-boyfriends. She met Reagan when he was head of the Screen Actor’s Guild. He had been previously married to fellow actress Jane Wyman. Both Nancy and Ronald took to another kind of acting – politics. “My life really began when I met my husband,” she explains and gave up her acting career.
Their affection and love for each other was observed worldwide as Nancy always gazed lovingly at her husband when he was addressing the public. Favouring the colour red, it became her couture trademark. She successfully battled breast cancer and her public speaking on the matter influenced many people to have mammograms. She cared for her husband through Alzheimer’s which he died from in 2004. Charlton Heston described their relationship “as the greatest love affair in the history of American Presidency.”
Barbara Bush was known as “everybody’s grandmother” because of her warmth and caring persona. She met George Bush at the tender age of 16 and was married by the time she was 20. They had six children including George junior, who would continue the Bush legacy. Her compassion for human life stemmed from losing her daughter from leukaemia at the age of four. Her lifelong causes have included the homeless, AIDS, the elderly and children’s welfare.
Hilary Clinton is another First lady who is as prominent in politics as her husband was. Her entry into public service was inspired from a speech she heard from Martin Luther King. Ironically, in her early political career she was always involved in Republican groups. She even applied for a job with NASA but was refused as no women were allowed in the astronaut programme at that time. She appeared twice on “100 most influential lawyers in America” list. She was the only First Lady to keep an office in the West Wing. Perhaps with an eye to her future career in politics, she fully supported (outwardly anyway) her husband in the Lewinsky scandal, which many believe saved him from his own resignation.
When Laura Bush come to the end of her reign, she was the 43rd First Lady. She became First lady of Texas but never dreamed she would become First lady of America and was shocked when she heard her husband was running for office. Even though her interest was not in politics, she is said to have been the driving force behind George Bush Junior. She openly discussed the plight of Afghanistan women and their oppression. A former White House Press Secretary stated, “She was more popular and more welcome, in many parts of the country than the president…”
Moving on through the Decades
Michelle Obama’s admirers believe she had the composure of Jackie Kennedy, the brain of Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush’s charm. With Nancy’s ‘Lady in red’ look and the ‘Jackie O’ statement, Michelle Obama brought a new finesse into the White House’ historical home. She held the prominent position from 2009 – 2017 and certainly left her sophisticated impression behind. Together with her husband, Barack, they noticed the shift in leadership and the US citizens voices were heard – they wanted change. Barack Obama was the first African-American president of the United States and served two terms which meant Michelle was the first African -American First Lady of the United States.
Michelle’s early career began in law. She was without doubt a role model for women and worked as an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition and physical activity. In 2009, Michelle Obama was named Barbara Walters’ Most Fascinating Person of the year.
The Obamas received advice from past first ladies Laura Bush, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Clinton about raising children in the White House. Michelle was a huge support in her husband’s campaigns and made many keynote speeches; many were spoken without the use of notes. The Obamas had their share of criticism from media outlets, in particular Fox news.
There was a lot of speculation about Michelle perhaps running for office, but she has always been quick to slam down these claims. In the epilogue of her book Becoming she says, “Politics can be a means for positive change, but this arena is just not for me.” Michelle and Barack are admired and respected as a power couple and continue to be vocal in their views for the American citizens.
When Donald J Trump became the 45th President,all eyes were on the next First Lady – Melania Trump. Melania is a Slovenian-American former model and businesswoman. In an article in The Guardian in June 2020, Mary Jordan, author of a new biography of the US first lady said “They are often in the same building, but nowhere near each other. She rarely goes into the West Wing. She doesn’t like to golf. She has her own little spa. She likes to be isolated. She is a loner. He is a loner. They’re perfectly happy to be separated.” Jordan goes on to say in her research on Melania, “A photographer said to me, ‘She’s like a ghost. Everyone knows her but nobody does.’
Compared to previous First ladies, she also has impeccable style and poise. Not as vocal as some First ladies but perhaps by not been as outspoken and active; she leaves an air of mystery around her position as First lady.
The American people have made the role of First Lady one the most important jobs in the country. The legacy will continue.